Strathcona Streets: Bodies, Guns, Bricks & Hendrix

A pile of dead bodies, Jimi Hendrix’s family, wooden brick roads, and an infamous gunfight, these are just a few highlights from James Johnstone’s East End History Tour. Last Saturday afternoon my friend Marie and I, along with a handful of others, went for a 1½ hr walk with James.

How can I fully convey this to you? Sometimes when you are lucky, you meet someone who loves and excels in their craft or work.  James is one of those excellent people; he knows his material and delivers it well. And he has researched over 700 houses in Vancouver so he’s probably one mean, knuckle-cracking researcher too.  Curiously, he’s also knowledgeable about random things, such as edible weeds, and when I showed him a photo of an unforgettably fragrant rose I’ve been trying to identify, he named it:  Madame Isaac Pereire. I had a feeling he would know. He’s just that kind of guy.

I’ve selected a few spots from the tour to feature.  Consider it a preview of what you’ll enjoy on a walk with James. Be sure to ask him about the houses of Wayson Choi, Stan Douglas, k.d. lang, Tosi and Freybe (yes the sausages).

And now we’re off!

James Johnstone points towards the alley where a stack of corpses was seen in 1918

Let’s start with a pile of dead bodies. During the Spanish Influenza of 1918, corpses were seen stacked up under tarps in an alley by the 400 block  of Heatley Avenue.  An undertaker lived in the turquoise house (above) and he was overwhelmed by the number of corpses  so he had to put them in the alley.

You see that area where I made you stand? That’s where they put the dead bodies.

We arrived in front of this house on East Pender Street just as the owners were returning from grocery shopping. They were a friendly older couple who knew James. Come to think of it, many people in the neighbourhood knew him and I think he was friends with a couple of people in the tour group too.  Anyway, if you are interested in moving to Strathcona he’s probably the guy to talk to and walk around with to get a feel for the neighbourhood because he’s both expert and resident.

But heed my warning: if you want to go the heritage home route, you better have gobs of money, be an architect or have a slew of handy family members, and above all else, you better have a big green thumb if you want your yard to fit in.

The carved wooden panels in the gables were found in good condition under a layer of stucco.

Hot like wasabi. Hedgecrest is an edible weed that tastes like wasabi.

The leaves up here are alright to try. They’re  high up enough so that they won’t have been peed on.

I didn’t try it.  The leaves were coated with a sticky dew!  I’ll  hunt for it another day and besides, I want to pick the right leaf and nibble it while alone.

Ah! Here is the Jimi Hendrix Shrine. The parking lot beside this red brick building used to be the location of Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, a famous landmark for black performers from 1948 to 1979. That’s the connection to Jimi. A bit of a stretch but as James says in his blog post,  207 Union & Jimi Hendrix & Some Clarification:

The little building did stand exactly beside 209 Union. From what we can tell from the only picture we have of 209 Union, the little brick building did indeed touch 209 Union. It was only a handshake away from the real thing. And if that type of association is good enough for the shrines dedicated to prophets, patriarchs and saints in the Holy Land, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?

The more tangible connection to Jimi is probably the home of  Ross and Nora Hendrix, his grandparents, who lived in Strathcona at 827 East Georgia Street (the current  owner is awaiting a commemorative heritage plaque).

A patch of wooden cobble on Union Street peaking through.

Wooden Bricks. From about 1910 onwards, the streets of Vancouver were paved with wooden bricks of Norway Pine that were 4″ x 8″ and 6″ deep. The road was first layered with gravel, then wet cement, followed by the wooden bricks, and a final layer of some sort of coating. If you spot a patch as shown above, be sure to note the wood grain on the bricks.  Keep an eye out for patches like these North of Hastings Street on Railway Street near Princess Avenue.

Cow Shit Road. Some of these huge garages used to be barns! Each morning a man collected the neighbourhood cows along this road, took them out to pasture, and returned them in evening.  The daily cow traffic left a heavily dung littered path and so people called it Cow Shit Road.

Bob Tait’s last stand. In March of 1917, this house at 522 East Georgia Street was the site of an infamous gunfight between Bob Tait and the Vancouver Police. At that time Frankie Russell, referred to by the papers as “a white woman of the underworld” was living with her lover Bob Tait, a black ex-soldier from the U.S. who was a drug addict and police informer. The incident began when their landlord and his muscle came to collect overdue rent from Russell. She had previously been on rent strike, refusing to pay until the roof was fixed but that day she just told them that she didn’t have money and asked for more time. Tait was in the other room recovering from an injury he possibly got while doing informant work. The confrontation between the landlord and Russell continued to escalate and Tait was dragged into it. The two men left when Tait came out of the room holding a shotgun.

The landlord came back later with the police.  Tait recognized among the police someone he worked with as an informer and he thought he was being double crossed by the police. Tait refused to come out and fired shots. One policeman was injured and a little boy walking by the area was killed by a stray bullet.  Reinforcements were called and  Chief Malcolm MacLennan arrived to take the lead. Gunfire ensued. Tait killed MacLennan with a shot to the head. In the end Tait committed suicide and Russell turned herself into police custody.

I’ve given an abbreviated version of  Lani Russwurm’s blog post, What Frankie Said (an earlier version of this was published in the journal of British Columbia History) which is a much more detailed and gripping read.

The little boy who was killed by a stray bullet lived in this faded yellow house just a few doors west of the gunfight.

A commemorative  mosaic on the corner across the street from the site of the gunfight.

At last we come to a house on Keefer Street. This is going to be a surprise! I’m keeping this one a secret. My friend Marie will be doing a guest post soon and the  subject of her article involves this house. I’m really looking forward to it.  You’ll love it too.

*James Johnstone offers walking tours around different neighbourhoods in Vancouver. It’s $20 per person with a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 30 people.  There is no substitute for the company of a knowledgeable expert. Take one of his tours and you’ll know what I mean. His next event, The Old West End Revisited: An Interactive Street by Street Photographic Journey will be held at the City of Vancouver Archives, 1150 Chestnut Street on July 19th at 7pm. Wanna go together?

Find James Johnstone on Twitter @househistorybc or

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4 Responses to Strathcona Streets: Bodies, Guns, Bricks & Hendrix

  1. James Johnstone July 11, 2010 at 11:08 pm #

    Loved this review of my walk. So glad you enjoyed your trip through the hood. I will point out that the picture you posted thinking it was peppercress is actually dock… I think at the same time i was talking about peppercress I mentioned that dock usually grows in the same place that stinging nettles grow and is a natural antidote… If you are stung by nettles you can rub dock leaves on the affected area and it will help. But really, thank you so much for this very positive feedback.


    • Zoe July 12, 2010 at 7:43 pm #

      Hey James! Thanks for stopping by and for clarifying about the plants. See you around!

  2. Leslie July 19, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    I’ve been on James’ East End tour; it’s fantastic! It was fun, and I learned so much. I can’t wait to go on his tour of the West End. James really knows his stuff. Highly recommended.

  3. James Johnstone August 10, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    I will be taking another East End History Walk around my neighbourhood this Saturday, August 14th, starting at 2pm. People wanting to come along should arrive at 696 East Hastings (at Keefer) before 2pm. Plenty of parking on the side streets. To reserve a space, e-mail me at

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